As Taysom Hill Goes, So Goes BYU in 2015

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Before quarterback Taysom Hill suffered a season-ending leg injury in the first half of a game Oct. 3 against Utah State, BYU was 4-0 and ranked in the Top 25.

Upon his absence from the lineup, the Cougars lost three of their next four en route to a second straight 8-5 finish.

BYU wasn’t beating up on slouches in that initial stretch with Taysom Hill behind center, either. Despite its sub-.500 final record, Virginia featured a rather solid defense, ranked No. 33 in the nation with 24.1 points per game allowed, which had previously given UCLA and Louisville fits.

Hill’s piece de resistance in his abbreviated 2014 campaign was the same as his marquee 2013 performance: a thorough deconstruction of the Texas Longhorns.

The 280 yards of total offense and three touchdowns Taysom Hill put up on the Texas defense matched Heisman candidate Trevone Boykin’s output against the Longhorns. No other quarterbacks could really make such claims, including Baylor’s Bryce Petty. He managed all of 118 total yards as just three of the Bears’ touchdowns that game came on the offensive end.

Longhorn defensive coordinator Vance Bedford worked with some of college football’s best defenses in his time as an assistant. He was also on staff as a cornerbacks coach for a Florida team that featured one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks ever.

Bedford made that comparison speaking to reporters after last year’s BYU romp.

“He reminded me a little of Tim Tebow. He’s a 235 pound guy with a strong, good arm. He’s sitting back there, and if you don’t get him down when you have your arms around him, he’s going to come through and make plays, which he did tonight. My hat’s off to him. He did a tremendous job, and their coaching staff did a tremendous job also.”

Taysom Hill has been so good against Texas, he actually contributed to the midseason firing of a very good defensive coordinator. Mack Brown let Manny Diaz go in 2013 after Hill rushed for 259 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-21 BYU win.

Diaz’s firing after the BYU game was a last-ditch effort on Brown’s part to right a ship veering off course, and not a knee-jerk reaction to one outing. But the Longhorns’ inability to stop Hill certainly didn’t help the coordinator’s matters.

And it’s not as if Diaz can’t oversee great defenses: He did so last year at Louisiana Tech, going from “fall guy to rock star,” as Jason Jones summarized it for Underdog Dynasty. His great season in Ruston earned Diaz a job in the SEC, where he’ll oversee Mississippi State’s defense in 2015.

No, Manny Diaz wasn’t the issue that fateful September night in Provo, nor was Vance Bedford a year later in Austin. Taysom Hill was the issue.

If the Cougars are to meet the lofty standard head coach Bronco Mendenhall has publicly set, saying BYU plans to pursue “national championships,” Taysom Hill needs to return in 2015 as the same dynamic playmaker he was against Texas — and he must do so every week, right from the outset.

BYU opens with a brutal stretch. Its first month is arguably the most difficult any team in college football faces, and the possibility of an 0-4 start is very real. In the spring, I posited such a start would likely doom Mendenhall, whose overall record is a tremendous 90-39. He’s also struggled in more recent years, and Texas thrashings aside, the Cougars have not been great against the more high profile opponents on their schedule since moving to independence in 2011.

The irony in Bedford praising BYU’s coaching staff is that the hire of Robert Anae to coordinate the Cougar offense in 2013, after he’d done so from 2005 through 2010 before a stint at Arizona, came with some scrutiny.

Deseret News columnist Dick Harmon called running the BYU offense “one of the most thankless jobs in college football.” However, BYU averaged more than 30 points per game in 2013, and jumped to 37.1 last season, good for No. 15 in the nation. Even without Taysom Hill in the lineup, the Cougars could score.

The truth is, BYU is just better with Hill behind center than any other quarterback.

Offense won’t be vexes BYU should it struggle through a difficult opening stretch, and again later against opponents like Missouri and Cincinnati. The tenuous defensive coaching situation that has permeated since 2010, when Mendenhall made himself coordinator midway through the season, remains a murky issue.

The Cougars won’t return to 2012 form, when their defense was ranked No. 3 in the nation at just 14 points per game allowed. Last year’s average (27.5) nearly doubled that, and the Cougars were especially bad in losses (43.6).

But with Taysom Hill captaining the offense, BYU’s best defense just might be a good offense. He can be the football Cougars’ Jimmer Fredette, leading a run-and-gun, high-scoring machine capable of winning any shootout.

It’s not an ideal strategy, but it may be BYU’s best bet for a successful 2015.